I took this photo today, but in both subject and composition, it hearkens back to my first weeks living in Chicago.
It was October, 1992. I’d moved to Chicago only a few weeks before. On a brisk fall Sunday, I decided to go exploring. I took the Red Line L train as far north as I could, then transferred to the Purple Line L and likewise took it as far north as I could. That put me at the northern limit of the L’s reach, so I continued walking northward on foot, just to see what was up there.
Very soon, I was walking up Sheridan Road in Wilmette, Illinois. As I rounded a bend, this startling sight came into view. What was this enormous white temple? What was it doing out here in the wilds of suburban Chicago overlooking Lake Michigan? To give you a sense of the scale of this photograph, the peak of the dome is 191 feet above its base. I was stunned. It seemed that it had to be a house of worship of some sort, but I’d never seen anything remotely like it. Even in photographs, the only structures I could recall that seemed anything like it were halfway around the world from Illinois. As I neared it, a sign came into view: “Bahá’í House of Worship – All are Welcome.”
Well fine. Nice of y’all to welcome me, but I’d never heard of Bahá’í. But I took them at their word and approached the building. It was surrounded on all sides by acres of beautifully landscaped gardens. On the south side of the building, I saw a sign reading “Visitor Center” with an arrow pointing to the lower level. Once again, I took them at their word.
Yes, there was quite a nice visitor center down there. One rack contained pamphlets about the Bahá’í faith printed in dozens of different languages. A small viewing room ran a continuously repeating film about a half hour long that offered a succinct account of the history of the faith. Another room continuously ran a short film about the history of the temple’s construction. Being in no great hurry – and being genuinely intrigued – I sat and watched. It was truly fascinating stuff.
I want to be clear on this point, in case you’re feeling the urge to jump to conclusions – I did not become a convert to Bahá’í. I am no expert on the tenets of the faith, though I have a general outline of it. So I’m not going to try to sell you on it, though as religions go, there’s a lot to like about it. I would encourage the curious to look it up online and learn more.
I think that for most people, if they know anything at all about Bahá’í, they know that Bahá’í are hugely persecuted in the Middle East, particularly by Muslims. The reasons for this persecution are interesting and two-fold. First of all, pretty much any new religion is going to have to deal with brutal suppression if it starts threatening to become popular. This was true in ancient Rome and it’s still true today. The second reason has to do with Islam’s view towards other faiths. They tend to be more tolerant of faiths that predate the founding of Islam, since aspects of Judeo-Christian beliefs and traditions are part of Islam’s past as well. But any new religion that comes after Islam is, obviously, a heresy and a departure from the True Path as revealed to God’s prophet Muhammad. Bahá’í was founded in 1844 in what is now Iran, so in both timing and geography, it has been a natural enemy of Islam from the very start. Bahá’í, it should be noted, includes among its roster of Divine Messengers such folks as Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus Christ and, by the way, Muhammad.
So if you’re ever in Chicago looking for something a thousand miles away from the capitalistic bustle of Navy Pier and the Mag Mile, head northward on Sheridan Road – that’s the same Sheridan Road that passes through Wrigleyville. Beyond the campus in Evanston, beyond a couple miles of dazzling mansions, you’ll find the Bahá’í Temple. Even if you don’t want to deal with the visitor center, just walking around the surrounding gardens and regarding the grand and singular architecture makes for a serene and rewarding experience.